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Wāhine Directors @HIFF43: Eleni Avendaño

Aleta interviews Eleni Avendaño about her short documentary Amefil screened at the 43rd Hawaiʻi International Film Festival (HIFF).

This interview is part of our weekly series of WĀHINE DIRECTORS @ HIFF 43 - a series of interviews that are a great opportunity to learn more about the directors' films that were screened at HIFF and their creative process. Also available on our podcast.

EA: I'm Eleni Avendaño. I am a filmmaker, and at this year's HIFF, I got to premiere my short documentary called AMEFIL.

AH: And what is that documentary about?

EA: AMEFIL is about manang Amy Agbayani and she is an 80 year old Filipina civil rights activist and kind of a local legend here in Hawaiʻi.

AH: And what brought you to this story? What was so compelling about it?

EA: Amy Agbayani is kind of behind the scenes a lot. And I really wanted to capture her story because, number one, it's really compelling. She is originally from the Philippines and has been in Hawaiʻi since the sixties, around the time of the civil rights movement. And since then she has made a lot of changes in Hawaiʻi very positive way. So in her role as a change maker, but also a woman, she might not be remembered by future generations. And so I felt compelled to document her story and explore everything that she's done for Hawai'i.

AH: And how did you get to know her story in the first place? Do you have history with her or… 

EA: I actually knew Amy kind of just because we're family friends but I hadn't seen her for a while since graduate school. And so when I came home to Hawaiʻi after graduate school, that's when we reconnected. And she also works with a cousin of mine who reminded me about what an amazing person she is. And it just kind of clicked from there.

AH: And how did you kind of figure out what your story was going to be like? 


EA: So the main challenge with this film was trying to fit in all these incredible things that she's accomplished in her life. And I definitely wanted to. One of the films embodies her persistence and how she never gives up. So I decided to focus on a couple of her many accomplishments. One of which was starting Operation Manon, which was a pipeline to college and peer to peer student support system for newly arrived immigrants from the Philippines and then from other countries.

She also played a role in establishing the Hawaiʻi First Civil Rights Commission. And so all these things took a lot of time, but it was nice to be able to reflect back and even pull some archival footage and really delve with her into what it took to make these such monumental changes and implement these programs at the university level, at the state level. And I'm hoping that it serves as a lesson for people of our generation who want to make change.

AH: What was that process like for you? 

EA: We did a really long sit down interview where she sat with me for like 3 hours and told me her whole life story and what her most proud accomplishments were. And then on camera interviews also after a lot of discussion to, you know, informal pre interviews and just talking story. But in addition to that, you know, when she could share her story in her own words.

Lucky for me, she's also in the news a lot. So I could find some news articles. And I also wanted to shout out, ʻUluʻulu archive. We had amazing archival footage not only of her, but just, you know, from that time period of when she first moved to Hawaiʻi and what was going on in the islands in that time. And that really enriched the film.

AH: Do you have any advice for other filmmakers?

EA: So this project actually started when I applied for the Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking Wahine Film Lab, and that was huge because first of all, that application was the process of writing my idea down on paper, thinking about the story I wanted to tell.

But when we started it, it was actually during the pandemic, and so it was all by Zoom. But, you know, everybody's feeling isolated at that time, and it was really incredible and such an enriching experience, even though it was virtual. I learned so much and it also immersed me into the wāhine new film community. And I hadn't been part of that before.

My background was in journalism and reporting and writing. And so, you know, it gave me a whole new batch of friends, you know, other wahine filmmakers here. And just having that camaraderie and that shared sense of wanting to explore this industry and learn as much as we can. It was really invaluable. And it also matched me with Shirley Thompson, who became my mentor.

And I could not have done this project without her. She was an amazing cheerleader, but also has incredible expertise, whether that's, you know, storytelling, expertise, editing. So I learned from her and from all of the amazing panelists and from Vera, and it was really helpful to have that group behind me and just have that network to keep going despite many obstacles, especially during the pandemic.

But, you know, you have friends rooting for you. It definitely instills more motivation.

AH: I see. So it's kind of like it kind of seems like the community was really what you feel like got you through. Like without the community and without the support of all these female filmmakers and just like the structure of the lab would have been much harder. So would you say then, like, your advice would be something having to do with, like, finding a community?

EA: My advice for other filmmakers is to find that kind of community that helps propel you forward and can hold you accountable. Filmmaking is really collaborative, and so you definitely want to have people to bounce ideas off of and show your rough cuts, and they'll definitely help you keep going and propel forward. The other advice that I would have is to really have your sense of purpose in mind and to think about why you want to do this project. So through most of the production of this film, actually, it started before I was a mom, and then I became hapai. Most of the production was hapai, I was trying to follow along. Amy was. And, you know, Big Belly and trying to keep up with her. She's so energetic and amazing. And then post-production was also after I gave birth.

And so it was definitely humbling in terms of figuring out how to balance and also giving myself grace and taking a little break and focusing on her. And I think, you know, during my maternity leave, I was still working on editing this film, but it allowed me to kind of just take some time and reflect a little bit and then also tackle the editing process with fresh eyes.

So definitely take breaks when you need it, but still try to hold yourself accountable to deadlines if you can and just keep going.


AH: What was your favorite part of this process? 

EA: One of my favorite parts about doing this film was being immersed in manang Amy's world and just seeing behind the scenes what she does and how she works and how hard she works. It was really, really inspiring. She put a lot of faith and trust in me to follow her around with a camera. You know, she didn't know how the story was going to come out.

And so that's a lot of faith and trust to put into someone. And so I was really honored by that and just wanted to do her story justice. I directed and filmed this piece. So I must say that I was, since the cinematography is my favorite as well, and then things like that. And when it clicks, it's so gratifying. So I directed this film, but I also shot it. And so it was, you know, just so much fun to be out there filming. I love the art of cinematography and I'm just constantly trying to get better. So that was really fun. And then also editing can be, you know, a difficult process. But when you finally get that story and it clicks, it is so gratifying. And so that was another one of my favorite parts, because there were many iterations of how one could tell this story. And so, you know, sharing some drafts with people that you love and trust and just people who know nothing about her, that was really helpful to know which direction to take and how to make it the most effective story possible.

AH: What do you want your audience to walk away with after they see your film? Like, what do you want them to think about? 

EA: I hope the audience walks away, inspired by manang Amy and learns from her about how to create change in your community to make it a better place. And most of all, I think about my daughter too, and the next generation. And now that I'm a mom, I really want her to know about amazing wāhine like Amy Agbayani. And so just to be aware of the work that she's put in and also to learn by her example.

AH: What is the best advice you've received when it comes to filmmaking?

EA: I think some of the best advice I received was probably from Shirley Thompson, who told me about the importance of just setting your own internal deadlines so you can just have that roadmap of where you want to be by a certain place.And while I didn't always meet those deadlines that I set for myself, I think the act of doing that definitely helped me stay organized and focus on where I was going.

AH: So. Okay, last question. What are you working on next?

EA: There's so many stories to tell. And I'm kind of waiting for the one that feels right for me to tell. But one of my next projects that I'm going to focus a little bit more time on is one about my grandfather, who was an Armenian refugee who became an American citizen here in Hawaiʻi. He was a journalist. And fun fact, I come from a long line of storytellers, actually. His wife, my grandmother, was also a journalist, and I have journalism roots on my dad's side of the family as well. But I'm definitely compelled by his story. And my mom is currently working on compiling interviews that she did with him. And so I'm hoping to do something creative on the film side of things and look into some old family home videos from the fifties, sixties and seventies. So just exploring that right now.

L. Eleni Avendaño is a freelance journalist and filmmaker whose writing, photos and videos have been published by outlets including the Associated Press, New York Times and PBS NewsHour. She currently serves as managing editor of Hawaii's statewide student news program, HIKI NŌ, on PBS Hawai'i. The Honolulu-born storyteller holds a master’s degree in journalism from U.C. Berkeley and returned home to work as a reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat as part of a two-year national service program called Report For America. Eleni is happiest when she has a cinema camera in hand, dancing with her halau, traveling by longboard or learning a new language.

Aleta Hammerich is a local filmmaker and graduate of UH Mānoa School of Cinematic Arts with experience in directing, cinematography, and editing. She has worked on projects such as Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi (2021), The ‘Ilima Lady (2023), and Homestead (2023). Aleta is passionate about using filmmaking as a platform to share women’s and LGBTQIA+ stories.


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